Guest Editorial: The Fungus in the Contemporary

Cuauhtémoc Medina

Chronological art categories have an idiosyncratic density. They do not point so much to established fixed lines in the time continuum as to the opaque horizons and conventions of the narratives we inhabit by turning them, either subtly or confrontationally, into battlefields of meaning. Behind the relative neutrality of the term "contemporary art", differing accounts, casts of characters and plots are constantly deployed, both from within the texture of our works and texts and in terms of their institutional condensations. In fact, "the contemporary" is, more than a moment in history, the interlocking of geographical, temporal, poetic and political elements around which the different parties of the global art networks constantly dispute the relevance and urgency of different―if not opposed―practices, along with the relative significance of a number of genealogical lines.

  In that sense, "the contemporary" ought to be understood as one of the most powerful instances of what Mikhail Bakhtin  described with the concept of the chronotope: it is a concept where "Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history ."1 “The contemporary" is not an adjective describing recentness, but a time-space narrative that structures different views on culture and, therefore, also propagates among its consumers modalities of agency within culture and in the world. 

  What makes this chronotope especially sensible in the field of art is, however, its function as judgment. As it used to be with the notion of "new" and "modern", to argue for the contemporariness of certain works, artistic devices or curatorial / critical operations involves in fact some kind of dictate on their right of existence. Indeed, despite the claim of the anti-historicism of several forms of postmodern thinking, terms like "anachronistic", "regressive", "belated", "outmoded" and "reactionary" remain critical puns. It is for this reason that the battles of inclusion and the geopolitical transformation of the artworld in the recent decades has, to a great extent, behaved in reatroactive mode. No surprise, the  so-called process of globalization of art has also been the imaginary time-space where curating involves art historical operations as a central part of its political agenda.

  The experience of the culture of "the contemporary" has in the recent years, however, involved a particular paradox inherent to its turning into a historical category. "The contemporary" is constantly defined in terms of the fixed and standardized annexation of a certain moment of the past. As if reforming the Nietzschean dichtum that history was born from the yearning of "the man of action" unable to find examples and guidance from his contemporaries2, both in terms of the institutional policies of collecting and scholarship, and also in the operative demarcations of marketing of art, we are witnessing a moment where the narrative stands still fixated in the medusa effect of a constant mirroring and testing of what is current, in relation to the 1960s and 1970s. Through an increasing number of exhibitions and scholarly accounts, if not also in the shaping of the memory of the participants and the way they organize their growing archives, "the contemporary" is increasingly growing white hair. In particular, in the need to remap the formerly marginalized histories of art of the so-called periphery, but also in the policies of museums and in the parlance of the marketplace, there is a tendency to understand "the contemporary" as having started sometime in the 1960s. A particular date stands behind this seeming reluctance to clear out the refrigerator. An inordinate number of our initiatives and narratives stand still, as if caught with the sight of a ghost, in and around the failed or aborted revolutions of 1968.

  It is in terms of underlining that unwritten global convention of constantly making exhibitions that reflect on the present state of art’s looking back into the borderline between the 1960s and 1970s, that this issue of Manifesta Journal has chosen for its title the image of the "fungus of the contemporary". We are conscious of the ambiguity of this figure, for it both suggests a certain concern with the way that the circularity of that narrative is in danger of allowing our reading of contemporary art to turn stale, and of the extraordinary proliferation of moments of dissidence and creativity involved in the concentration of those contemporary-historical curatorial and artistic operations. 

  The experiences, texts and images that this issue of the Manifesta Journal contains attest both to the unlikely coincidence of curatorial efforts around the world to intervene in the historical narratives of contemporary art in terms of a manifold of ways to widen its fables, restore (and frequently reinvent, alter and even remake) the artworks that stand as its referents, and introduce a wealth of intellectual and sensible complexity to counter the hegemonic academic and commercialized standard narratives that the academic industry of the North fashions as global histories. We would like to imagine that, among the truffles, magic mushrooms and huitlacoche that the curatorial and artistic projects selected have all gathered in this journal, the reader may also find some strains of pennicilum fungi growing, so to speak, on the corpse of recent “contemporary history”-based curatorial projects. Rather than documenting the historicist leanings of the contemporary art world, we have chosen projects that activate production of the social memory of art as a means to politicize, complicate and even question its radical or even revolutionary myths of origin.

  For what is characteristic of the trope of "the contemporary" is, again, as Bakhtin argued, that the author of the narrative appears dialogical to the time structure of his or her narratives, feigning a certain distancing and exteriority from which the fable emerges, at the same time that the author specifies his or her  "tangential"3 role in the account. It is in terms of reflecting on the complex coming and goings of the mushrooming of "the contemporary" that this Manifesta Journal would like to let its spores spread.

  • 1. M.M. Bakhtin,The Dialogic Imagination, tr. by Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1981, p. 84
  • 2. Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations. ed. Daniel Breazeale, tr. R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 67.
  • 3. Bakhtin, op. cit., p. 256